When a couple split up they are likely to have a tough and emotional time whilst coming to terms with the fact that their relationship is over.
For couples with children, this period is destined to be even more challenging, as they will also have to focus on making the necessary arrangements to ensure that their little ones adapt to the situation and have their needs catered for moving forward.
Decisions will need to be made, amongst other things, about how much contact the children will have with each parent, their living arrangements and what financial support will be given by way of child maintenance payments.
These topics can naturally be quite difficult to discuss and it is quite common for disagreements between the parents to arise.
The Child Maintenance Options online calculator is an excellent tool that allows parents to input the information relevant to their situation before generating the appropriate child maintenance figure that should be paid monthly.
When a child maintenance agreement cannot be reached between the parents, the Child Maintenance Service can act as an intermediary between them. The fees for using the government-led scheme include a £20 application fee, a 20% collection fee on top of the maintenance figure (to be paid by the paying parent), and a 4% enforcement fee which is deducted from the child maintenance. Such fees should ideally work to deter parents from using the service and instead they should attempt to reach such arrangements themselves.
As mentioned above, another significant agreement that must be reached is in relation to the children’s living arrangements and how much time they will spend with each parent.
Sometimes this can be simple to work out and children may split their time equally between two houses, or perhaps have one parent’s house as their base whilst going to stay with their other parent every other weekend. When such arrangements can be made amicably, it is hugely beneficial for the children involved. After all, suddenly having two homes can be a big enough change, without the children having to experience a sense of conflict when their parents cannot agree on an appropriate parenting plan.
Unfortunately, when child arrangements cannot be agreed following divorce and separation, it is often fathers who feel as though they are mistreated.
Although there is certainly no legal presumption that mothers should determine their children’s schedules, sadly this can often happen. Due to this there are several support and action groups who are fighting for a presumption of equal parental contact post-separation.
Whilst the above campaign is an extremely honourable one, care must be taken to ensure that the issue of parental contact is kept separate from other child-care issues.
Unfortunately the opposite is encouraged by some support groups. By way of example, ‘New Father 4 Justice’ (which, importantly, should not be confused or affiliated with ‘Fathers 4 Justice’) claims that they strongly support the non-payment of child maintenance by those who are being denied access to their children.
There is no doubt that being refused child contact is one of the hardest and most excruciating things that could happen to a parent; however, the above attitude is extremely damaging. To actively encourage fathers who are not seeing their children to stop providing financially for them only serves to increase tensions at a time when they are, no doubt, already sky-high.
Aside from the fact that it will be to the children’s detriment if maintenance is not paid, it is also important to note that financial support – although it does not automatically entitle a parent to contact – is a legal duty. Contact and maintenance are two separate issues and therefore should not be merged together to encourage a ‘pay per view’ environment.
As explained on the Child Maintenance Options website, whilst it is certainly important (when safe) for both parents to have an active role in the children’s lives, it is important that access should not be used as a bargaining tool for negotiating child maintenance and vice versa.
If a parent is being refused contact to their children, they should continue to make child maintenance payments whilst trying to resolve the issue.
Although some parents may find making payments at such a time challenging, they should try and remember that the children’s welfare is the priority and it will be them who suffer if the maintenance is not paid. The suffering parent can then try and negotiate contact with their unwilling ex-partner, although sometimes this will not be possible.
In such a situation, mediation should be the next port of call.
Mediation is an extremely effective and reasonably inexpensive way of trying to sort such disagreements out – so much so, that attending a MIAM (mediation information meeting) is now a compulsory preliminary step for those wanting to issue court proceedings. At mediation, an independent third party will try to guide the parents to reach a child arrangement that they are both happy with.
If mediation is unsuccessful, an application to court can be made for a child arrangement order as a last resort. Naturally, court proceedings are expensive and, often, physically and emotionally stressful, and should be avoided if possible. Unfortunately however, in some circumstances, court will be the only option and a judge will make a decision in the children’s best interests.
Whichever method is used to try to arrange child contact, parents must remember to stay focused on the children and remember that withholding maintenance payments will only negatively impact the children that they care so much about. It is also worth remembering that, by continuing to pay maintenance whilst being refused child contact, parents are showing their ex-partners that they are willing to do the right thing all of the time – not just when things go their way.
Katie McCann is head of family law and in-house counsel at Kuits Solicitors in Manchester City Centre. She has a special interest in resolving high value relationship breakdown disputes.